Tooth troubles lead to health, self-esteem issues for kids in need

Infant Welfare's Portable Dentistry program brings care to schools, daycares

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

The Oak Park River Forest Infant Welfare Society has been providing healthcare to area children who are unable to afford the cost of private care for generations. Through its medical, dental and social services, the IWS Children's Clinic served over 3,400 children in more than 10,000 clinic visits during the past year.

Children's Clinic practitioners realized there was a widespread scarcity of quality dental care for children in need in the Chicago area, and in 2007, the clinic expanded its offerings through its Oral Health Outreach and Education to provide preventive dental care and oral health education in schools for low-income Chicago-area children. 

The Portable Dentistry program provides oral exams, cleanings, fluoride varnish treatments, and dental sealants in the schools for low-income elementary, middle and preschool students who do not have a regular dental provider.  Students identified as having urgent oral health needs are referred to the Oak Park-based clinic for restorative care, providing a seamless flow from diagnosis to referral to treatment.

Dr. Meg Vizgirda, one of the dentists working with the Portable Dentistry program, stresses that dental health is an important piece of overall health and self-esteem for children. Through the portable dentistry clinic, she says, "We encourage establishing good oral health habits early in order to prevent poor dental health in adulthood.  Delta Dental states that untreated tooth decay affects 1 in 5 children aged 5 to 11. It is one of the leading health problems in children today. This rate doubles when we look at children in lower income families.  Decay can lead to missing teeth which can affect speech and the ability to eat properly.  Children with dental issues can fall behind in school.  Thirty percent of children aged 6 to 12 missed school in 2016 due to dental issues.  Children in the U.S. missed 9 million days of school due to dental problems."

Vizgirda feels the portable dentistry program is making a real impact in the lives of children.

"Some of these children have never seen a dentist prior to our visit.  We provide treatment to these patients and subsequently offer them a dental home.  We send the children home with our clinic information, and we often see these families in our clinic for follow up. We often identify children with urgent needs such as abscessed teeth, large carious lesions, or untreated dental trauma.  We follow up with these families and encourage them to seek treatment at our clinic.  We see many children with special needs that have not had dental treatment due to the high cost of pediatric dental visits. Another important component of our program is educating the students on proper oral hygiene and nutrition."

Clinic Director Victoria Novotny says the Portable Dentistry clinic is an ongoing, permanent program at the IWS Children's Clinic. "The program has dramatically expanded services over the past five years.  In fiscal year 2019, 2,151 children at 35 schools and 3 health fairs received preventive dental care and education through the Portable Dentistry program. Another 4,294 students at 26 sites including 17 schools, 6 preschool and daycare centers, 2 parent groups and 1 special event participated in an oral health and nutrition education workshop. In addition, 2,595 individuals received oral health information at 40 community health and resource fairs."

"In fiscal year 2020, we project 2,100 children will receive preventive dental care in the schools and at health fairs through the Portable Dentistry program," she says. "Another, 5,000 students will participate in an oral health and nutrition education workshops at schools conducted by our program manager, and an additional 2,000 individuals will receive oral health information at 30 health and resource fairs."

In the future, Novotny sees the Portable Dentistry program growing and says they hope to increase by 10 percent the number of children referred to the Children's Clinic after being flagged as needing urgent care during exams conducted at schools.

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